On Monday, Sept. 27, a Western student parked his $3,000 Sentinel bike at the bike rack underneath the Wilson Library skybridge and secured it with a combination cable lock. It was 3 p.m. The student entered the library, but after less than an hour they were interrupted by a text from a friend with alarming news: Somebody was riding the student’s bike around the other side of campus.
The friend had spotted the distinctive bike by the Wade King Recreation Center. But instead of a student, it was being ridden by a stocky bald man with a large duffel bag. The student went outside the library and confirmed his friend’s suspicion: The bike was gone. In its place, a lone pair of wire cutters.
'It makes me a little scared'
The student is one of at least 11 who have had their bikes stolen on campus in the first two weeks of class. Bike racks outside Ridgeway Delta, Ridgeway Omega, Nash Hall, Ridgeway Kappa, Wilson Library, Alma Clark Glass Hall and Edens Hall have been struck.
In the same period, more than 11 cars were broken into at the Lincoln Creek Park and Ride, a parking lot owned by the university for use by students with valid parking permits.
“It makes me a little scared,” said Joshua Galaviz, a first-year at Western who uses the Lincoln Creek Park and Ride every day. “I tend not to leave valuables in my car, so if someone were to break in my car they won't get anything good.”
Galaviz has seen multiple broken windows on cars in the parking lot and noticed an increase in University Police patrolling the area in the morning. There is usually one University Police car patrolling the area and at least two on site while he waits for the bus, Galaviz said.
The number of car prowls listed on the University Police crime log is likely an undercount, because thefts sometimes go unreported. Alex Wheeler, a first-year at Western who regularly uses the Lincoln Creek Park and Ride, chose not to contact the police after his car was broken into.
Wheeler noticed his car had been broken into after getting dropped off by the bus at Lincoln Creek Park and Ride on his way to a job orientation.
“I got to the park and ride and I noticed that basically my car had gotten broken into, my cap and gown from my glove box was on the seat and my center console had been gotten into because a couple CDs and my car registration were out of there,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said that the lock on his passenger side door was broken, so he went to Fred Meyer and got duct tape to tape up his door handle so it would not happen again.
Wheeler has noticed an increase in University Police presence at the Lincoln Creek Park and Ride since the beginning of the year. He said it makes him feel a little safer, though he still worries about his car getting broken into. He is concerned about his window getting smashed in, because he doesn't want his insurance payments to go up, and it would be expensive to fix it.
Counting the damage
Police reports obtained by The Front show a cumulative $13,313.69 in lost property and damage caused by car prowls during the first week of classes. Much of the estimated damage costs comes from broken windows. The items stolen from vehicles include sunglasses, a speaker, a credit card, $140 in cash and a backpack containing a first-aid kit and small tools.
In the second week of the quarter, the University Police crime log shows that catalytic converters were stolen from cars in Lincoln Creek Park and Ride on Oct. 1 and 2.
Darin Rasmussen, Western’s director of public safety and chief of the University Police, said property theft and car prowling is not a rarity in Bellingham and the Lincoln Creek parking lot is no exception.
“That said, making your car a less likely target substantially reduces the chances of this happening.” Rasmussen said.
When asked what students can do to ensure the safety of their vehicles at Lincoln Creek Park and Ride, Rasmussen said to refer to the language covered in the email the WWU Campus Advisory sent on Sept. 24. The email listed safety tips for students hoping to protect their vehicles:
Do not leave any valuables in plain sight; even loose change can be enough to precipitate a break-in.
Remove or hide anything that a car prowler might mistake as something worth stealing.
If valuables must be left behind, hide them out of sight several blocks away before parking.
Disable internal trunk releases per your owner's instruction manual; this way, if someone breaks into your car, they still can’t just pop the trunk.
Audible alarms or other theft-deterrent devices can be effective
Rasmussen also referred to the language from the Campus Advisory when asked what students can do to protect their bikes.
The safest spot on a bike rack is in the middle; if you see an open slot there, grab it!
Buy the best lock or locks that you can afford.
Make your bike the “hardest bike to steal” on any bike rack; two locks are always better than one.
Two different kinds of locks are even tougher to defeat; a U-lock and a chain or a U-lock and a cable mean the thief needs two sets of tools to get your bike, not just one.
Stuff as much into the middle of a U-lock as you can; don’t just use a wheel or the frame of the bike if you can get both inside the “U.”
Don’t count on foot traffic or cameras to deter a thief.
The Lincoln Creek Park and Ride is patrolled by UPD and the Bellingham Police Department. To help ensure the safety of students and their vehicles, Rasmusson said the department is increasing education through campus advisories.
Tips for prevention
Rasmussen confirmed that UPD presence has increased at Lincoln Creek Park and Ride.
“We stepped up our random patrol checks of the area following the car prowls and continue to do so, hoping to serve as a deterrent to future crimes,” Rasmussen said
Rasmussen said students who see suspicious activities should call UPD at 360-650-3555 or report it through the recently introduced LiveSafe campus safety app.
Rasmussen said students should watch for individuals walking through the parking lot trying multiple door handles, using multiple keys on the same vehicle, broken auto glass and doors left slightly open.
Marcus Subia, a Bellingham police officer, said car prowling suspects hate three things: light, noise and attention. The park and ride is a dark area and can be easily traversed if cars are not locked and valuables are present, Subia said.
Suspects are looking for things that they quickly take such as money, change and items that can be easily pawned without drawing attention, Subia said.
Subia said car prowls and bike thefts are the most common type of crime reported to the Bellingham Police Department. He attributed this to the size of the town and other unique characteristics. There are lots of outdoorsy people that live out of their cars and tend to leave items in them, he said. Bellingham is also a popular city for bicycling.
Subia said there are a few simple things people should do to help protect their bikes.
“First piece is to write down your bicycle's serial number and take photos of it,” Subia said. “You won’t believe how many times we get a report without either of the two and it does prove to be difficult.”
Bicycles are stolen to be cut up or pieced out with other stolen bicycles to create a new bicycle, Subia said.
Subia said it’s important for people to report thefts and get a case number. Car prowling and bicycle theft is a communal problem, he said. If police don’t know it happened, they won’t be able to allocate the proper resources to address it.
Reporting contributed by Nate Sanford
Joshua Solorzano (He/Him) is majoring in Visual Journalism and minoring in Spanish, reporting on the Campus News Beat for The Front. When he’s not doing school work or working he enjoys listening to music, exploring new places and learning about different cultures, as well as his own. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.